This post is for Adriana Rivera, our friend from Mexico Distrito Federal. When she came to visit this past February she brought with her some tasty goodies, one of which was achiote paste. Inasmuch as I had the achiote paste I had to make cochinata pibil. So, I did and it was really good. Thanks, Adriana!!
Last night after we ate dinner I sat down and posted a photo of the meal on Facebook. One of my friends commented “Not sure what it is… But it looks delicious.” So, that, my friends, is the starting point of today’s post. What is cochinita pibil?
Cochinta simply means little female pig. It typically refers to a suckling female pig. Pibil means buried but it refers to a Mayan technique of steaming meat in a “pib,” Mayan for pit. Hence, cochinita pibil is a female suckling pig buried in a pit and steamed. Translating the name of the dish, however, doesn’t really answer the question of what is it now does it? There must be more to the dish than merely steaming a small female pig in a pit, right? To find the answer to the question, you need look no further than Robert Rodriguez’s movie “Once Upon a Time in Mexico” starring Antonio Banderas and Johnny Depp. At the beginning of the movie, Depp hands Banderas his plate and tells him
“El, you really must try this because it’s, ah, puerco pibil. It’s a slow-roasted pork. Nothing fancy, just happens to be my favorite. And I order it with a tequila and lime in every dive I go to in this country, and honestly, that is the best it’s ever been, anywhere. In fact, it’s too good. It is so good that when I’m finished with it, I’ll pay my check, walk straight into the kitchen and shoot the cook.”
Of course, true to his word, as the scene progresses, Depp does indeed pay his check, go into the kitchen and kill the cook. I’m sure glad I wasn’t the cook.
Cochinita pibil and Depp’s puerco pibil are essentially the same thing. The dish is of Mayan origin from the Yucatan Peninsula. Traditionally, it is a slow roasted suckling pig that is marinated in citrus juice and achiote paste. The meat is wrapped in banana leaf, buried in a pib with a fire at the bottom and then very slowly roasted. Because of the large quantity of meat from a whole suckling pig, the expense and difficulty in obtaining one, and the need for a pib, modern recipes now call for pork shoulder (Boston butt) or another cut of pork, instead. Also, instead of the pib, dutch ovens or slow cookers are now used. The high acid content of the citrus marinade and the process of slow cooking tenderizes the meat, allowing otherwise tough pieces of meat (pork shoulder) to be used. The meat will be ridiculously tender and the sauce produced by the marinade and roasted pork juices is simply surreal.
Now, the traditional Yucatecan recipes always use Seville or bitter orange juice for marinating. If bitter oranges are not available, sweet orange juice combined with lemons, limes or vinegar may be used as a substitute. Alternatively, as in this recipe, you can simply use lime juice. The other critical ingredient in all cochinita pibil recipes is achiote paste made from annatto seeds. The achiote paste not only provides flavor but it gives the meat its characteristic red color. You can make your own achiote paste if you so desire. Diana Kennedy has a beautiful recipe for achiote paste in her book “The Cuisines of Mexico.” If you don’t want to put the effort into pounding the softened annatto seeds, herbs and spices into a paste with in a molcajete, you can purchase Achiote paste at most Mexican food stores or online. This recipe used El Yucateco brand.
As Johnny Depp explained, there is nothing fancy about this dish. In fact, it is remarkably simple and something you can start in the morning before you go to work and feed your family when you come home. Inasmuch as I have a mental block against using slow cookers, I roasted our meal in my dutch oven. However, you want to do this dish is up to you. Nonetheless, this dish is proof positive that the simple things in life are sometimes the best. You can even have to have a tequila and lime with it if you want. Just don’t shoot the cook when you’re done. Here is what we did.
- 2.5 – 3 lb boneless pork shoulder
- 1/2 package (3.5 oz) achiote paste
- 1/2 cup fresh lime juice
- 1/2 cup water
- 1 large white onion, sliced – 1/4 inch slices
- banana leaf
Add 2 teaspoons of salt to a small mixing bowl
Crumble achiote paste into bowl with salt
Now, add the lime juice
Using a spoon, smash the achiote paste with the back of the spoon and stir the mixture until the achiote paste has dissolved and you have a nice, smooth, somewhat thick marinade.
Take the banana leaf and cut 2 sections roughly 18 inches, each. Line an 8 qt dutch oven with the leaves whereby they form a cross. If you are using a slow cooker do the same. Then add the meat to the dutch oven/slow cooker.
Now, pour the achiote marinade over the top and around the pork shoulder.
Arrange onions over and around the pork.
Fold banana leaves over the pork, cover and refrigerate overnight (or at least 6 hours).
The next day, remove from refrigerator, pour 1/2 cup of water around the pork, cover and place in a 275 F oven. Alternatively, place in a slow cooker set on high.
Roast for 3-1/2 or 4 hours until tender. If using a slow cooker, cook for roughly 5 – 6 hours until tender. It will hold for several hours on the slow cooker’s keep warm function if you have a programmable slow cooker. Remove from oven/slow cooker, carefully transfer the pork to a serving plate (it will break up easily) and arrange onions around the pork.
Remove excess fat from remaining liquid in the pan. If you have more than 2 cups of liquid in the pan/slow cooker pour the liquid into a saucepan and reduce to 2 cups to make a intensely flavored sauce. You are more likely to have more than 2 cups if you use a slow cooker as opposed to the dutch oven method. Pour the sauce over the pork.
Add cilantro as garnish and serve with plenty of tortillas, lime pickled red onions and a spicy salsa.